Members of law enforcement are accustomed to criticism and even full-on attacks in the media and most have learned to withstand them. With social media, however, the attacks are more vicious, more plentiful, more ridiculous and reach farther and wider than ever before. In some cases, the officers who would be the first to run toward gunfire run as fast as possible away from communicating with the public—especially when it comes to social media.
Recent events in Ferguson, New York City and Cleveland have only increased the flurry of contemptuous messages directed at police and it’s being felt by law enforcement across the country. Recent examples of social media posts by police that have gone wrong are numerous, even though they were made with the best of intentions. Possibly one of the most criticized is the case of a public information officer for the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police (IMPD) who was trying to improve communication with the public when he answered a critic on Twitter with a message in which he included the hashtag
#WeCanBreathe. This in reference to the last words of Eric Garner—who died in the custody of NYPD. The hashtag #ICantBreathe has become the theme of the protestors on Twitter. The @IMPD_News Twitter account became the subject of a great deal of criticism in the hours and days following. Yet the PIO, a black police officer, said he was only trying to emphasize that no one was hurt during the arrests.
It’s quite understandable then, that some police departments are saying very little, if anything, lately. Understandable, yes; justifiable, no. Now is not the time to be less active on social media. Now is the time to increase social media conversations and get colleagues who have not participated to do so. But now is the time to be very measured, thoughtful and strategic as well. The example above wasn’t intended to be malicious, racist or incite violence. But make no mistake, whether it was or not, if there’s any chance the media and cop critics among citizens can turn it into a hateful message, rest assured they will take that chance.
Growing the “Share of Voice”
The business community uses “share of voice” to refer to advertising (i.e. how much of the advertising around a particular product does a company have vs. that of its competitors). The term can also be useful to discuss police communications. Instead of advertising think of the things being said about your department as well as policing as a whole, and instead of competitors, think of the people who would say or do anything to damage your department’s reputation. The idea is to produce more quality content about the real work police officers do, than what the critics think they do. Here are six steps to increasing the policing profession’s share of voice:
1. Stay in the game or get in the game if you’re not already. People are talking about policing more than they have in a long time. So what if they’re not saying what we might like? Use this as an opportunity to reach them—and say something! Also, recruit a neighboring PD who isn’t using social media.
2. Increase your messaging and evaluate your posts. Are you posting at all times of the day—including overnight? Are you posting on Facebook at least once a day and 15–20 times or more on Twitter? Automated posts don’t count.
3. Answer people. It’s supposed to be social. If somebody is talking about you or to you, answer them. Answer the critics too. All too often, especially with critics, police decide to ignore a message. Sometimes this is approprotate, but if you see an opportunity to educate, don’t be afraid to take it!
4. Talk about the good work you do. Be careful to create a balance. While not ignoring negative events, talk about the good work your officers do. Post the stats about how crime has gone down, etc. Post them often.
5. Unite around police causes. Think of the possibilities if every officer and police department on Twitter subscribed to the Officer Down Memorial alerts or the National Law Enforcement Memorial alerts and tweeted every line of duty death. The public couldn’t help but get the message.
6. Have a strategy. Don’t wing it. Determine your main communication goals. Include department goals and goals for policing overall and create messaging to achieve those goals. This way, the commanders can approve them ahead of time and you’re less likely to be the one to post something that the media pounces on as being insensitive.
The bottom line: it’s time to kick it up a notch. For some police departments, it’s time to kick it up nine or 10 notches. Regardless of where your epartment falls, let’s do this.